Humans are animals, but humans have long insisted on their superiority over other animals. In the first systematic effort to explain the relation of humans to other animals, Aristotle established distinctions that have endured for centuries: some animals have memory, but only humans have history; animals have voices, but only humans have speech; animals perceive pain and pleasure, but only humans have a sense of good and evil. Humans therefore uniquely have morals and politics. Although the Greek philosopher admitted that a human could become “the most unholy and the most savage of animals, and the most full of lust and gluttony,” the order of nature, he insisted, put humans on top. Nature “made all animals for the sake of man,” for food, clothing, and whatever else we need.
In 1973, when Peter Singer raised the flag of animal liberation in these pages, he helped galvanize an animal rights movement that over the decades since has challenged the presumption of human dominion over animals. Aristotle’s distinctions have not lost their salience; research in fields ranging from evolutionary biology to linguistics seeks to refine and even redefine the differences between human and other animal systems of communication. Most at issue, however, are the consequences to be derived from these differences. Aristotle minced no words:
Where then there is such a difference as that between soul and body, or between men and animals…, the lower sort are by nature slaves, and it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master.
Domination is the nub of the problem: Do humans have unlimited rights over animals, and if not, what are the grounds for limitations on human dominance?
The answers to these questions are now the subject of furious debate, but one thing is certain: the animal question is popping up in places where it was hardly ever posed before, such as English literature, art history, political theory, and history. One sign of this burgeoning interest is the publication last year of The Oxford Handbook of Animal Studies. This useful volume is not a primer on how to conduct laboratory experiments on mice, rats, birds, dogs, etc. It offers instead an overview of the different kinds of approaches now developing, from considering animals as reflexive thinkers to more familiar debates concerning the ethics of animal food production and zoos. If animal studies seems too tame, a leap can be taken to “critical animal studies” or “post animal studies,” whose proponents argue against capitalism and for veganism, as well as for the complete liberation of nonhuman animals.
Whatever one thinks of this dizzying rush to the nec plus ultra, animal studies are here to stay. Although meat consumption is…
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